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Dealing with sex offenders // "Megan's Law' may actually do harm

Last month, President Clinton signed a tough federal "Megan's Law" requiring state authorities to notify communities of a convicted sex offender's presence. But the bill is a mere placebo to soothe national guilt over the mounting problem of child sexual abuse. Indeed, it might actually make the problem worse.

Children are sexually abused at an alarming rate. According to the most reliable studies, at least one in five girls and one in 10 boys in this country are sexually molested before the age of 18. The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that, in 1991, 65.5 percent of state prison inmates convicted of rape or sexual assault had victimized children under 18. The figure seems even more appalling when one considers that other research indicates less than 6 percent of child molestation is ever reported.

The new federal Megan's Law was named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in New Jersey in 1994. Her tragic fate is echoed in the horror stories of other children such as My Ly Nghiem, who was raped and murdered in Binghamton, N.Y., last year. Megan's Law is an attempt to prevent horrific crimes such as these, which are every parent's darkest fear.

Yet this purported solution ignores the real problem of abuse that occurs daily in homes of all economic levels, religious persuasions and cultural backgrounds, at the hands of fathers, mothers, stepparents, relatives and close family friends. According to Stop It Now! a Vermont-based organization devoted to educating the public about sexual abuse and abusers, at least 90 percent of victims nationally are molested by someone they know and trust.

The Megan's Law approach is controversial because civil libertarians argue that it deprives ex-convicts who have paid their debt to society of their civil rights. However, the real issue is not the law's constitutionality, but its effect on the problem of child sexual abuse itself.

First, Megan's Law is directed at the 10 percent of perpetrators who fit the stereotypes of dirty old men lurking in playgrounds or sociopaths who randomly kidnap and kill their victims. But these stereotypes do not correspond to reality. Adults convicted of felony sex crimes rarely have criminal histories and are less and less likely to be strangers to their victims. Physically violent abusers who prey on strangers are the minority. Most child molesters choose children they know.

Second, Megan's Law threatens to direct attention away from more effective efforts to reduce the problem. Statistics suggest that the recidivism rate of offenders untreated while institutionalized is about 60 percent, while among those who have been treated it is only 15 to 20 percent. Budget cuts already have caused dramatic setbacks in effective treatment programs. Stiffer sentences without treatment produce offenders who have been hardened rather than rehabilitated. The weakening support for treatment programs endangers children.

Third, public notification when a freed child molester moves into a neighborhood may simply increase the tendency to repeat the offense. Untreated and shunned by the community, an offender may turn back to the behavior that once brought him comfort. What will he have to lose?

A new Megan's Law may make the president, legislators and the public feel something is being done to combat child sexual abuse, but it's a poor substitute for programs that are working to solve the problem. Sex offenders need extensive counseling programs while incarcerated, with follow-up on release. The short-term costs may be burdensome, but the long-term benefits are immeasurable.

Megan's Law threatens to cause more harm than good. Branding convicted sex offenders with a modern-day mark of Cain merely addresses a symptom of the larger problem of child sexual abuse. We need to aggressively treat the problem rather than rely on Megan's Law to make us feel self-righteous and safe.

Bernard L. Brock is a professor of communications at Wayne State University, and Pamela D. Schultz is an assistant professor of communications at Alfred University.

Special to Newsday